Chernobyl children in Italy, a gift for host families

The Girotondo Committee gets families to give some of their time and resources to host Belorussian children, to allow them to detoxify from radiation and grow healthy. AsiaNews met some of these families, who “get more than they give”.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Since Chernobyl, a city on the border of Ukraine and Belarus, was hit by a nuclear disaster on 26 April 1986, thousands of children have travelled to Italy each year for a therapeutic vacation, staying with generous families willing to open their doors to give these children a chance to detoxify from radiation exposure.

One association, the ‘Girotondo*Committee’, a non-profit organisation based in Gassino Torinese, Turin (Italy), encourages families to give some of their time and resources to help Belorussian children grow up healthy. For some of the participants, “We get more out of them than they get out of us”. Here is the story of some, as told to AsiaNews.

"It is getting harder to find willing families"

"My husband and I don’t have any children,” says Daniela, “so we started this journey in 2003, to help children who need it. Since then, we have hosted five boys and one girl. Some of them had thyroid or kidney problems.”

“The Committee allows families to take in the same child for two consecutive years, for two months (March and April) during the school year. There are however exceptions for special cases."

This year, guest children will return to Belarus on 1 May.

"If a child wants to return to the same family for more years, he or she can do it in the summer,” Daniela explains. “This avoid having the same children, because it is now increasingly difficult to find families willing to host them. Some are afraid of getting sick from radiation.”

“In fact, we know that the children do not pose a threat from a health point of view. But for the kids, there are great benefits. In two months, they can lose 40 per cent of radiation."

This year, the Committee placed 25 children, aged 7 to 9 years, with 25 different families.

"For children, eating non-radioactive food is already a great thing”, Daniela explains. “In Belarus they drink a lot of milk and eat berries and mushrooms that grow in highly radioactive undergrowth.”

The Girotondo Committee also organises summer camps in Belarus, with families and volunteers helping children play. Otherwise, they would be left on their own.

“At best, their parents work all day; or worse, they are alcoholic. In either case, they would be left in the streets”.

For Daniela, hosting the children was a bonus. “As a homemaker, I dedicated all my time to the children when they are here. I can say that we got a lot out of this experience. It is certainly demanding, but I get it back and more. These kids give you a lot and when they leave, they take a peace of you.”

“We don’t provide only food and health”

Caterina is hosting a 9-year-old boy for a second time. "We give them things that seem trivial but are essential (food, clothes, dental and eye care). And we get a lot in return. In exchange for a small effort, I realise that, in addition to the gratitude and affection, we also get to know a lot of things about a different culture – small details and different habits, ways of communicating – which we can discover in our own home.”

The child who is staying at Caterina’s "is lucky because he comes from a simple family but one that is there for him. We regularly stay in touch and exchange with them via Skype. In Belarus, there is a high rate of alcoholism, which has climbed in the years following the tragedy. Because of this problem, many children arrive from very difficult situations."

After two months in Italy, "the children can go home with a lot of useful things for their future.” Caterina saw this a few days ago. “I went to the theatre to see a play based on Chernobyl Prayer by Nobel Prize Svetlána Alexiévich. Moved, a young, very good actress said that she had spent two years in Italy. 'Without that experience, I would not be the person I am today,' she said."

"We get more out of them than they get out of us”

Some have been taking in Belorussian children for more than a decade. This is Mara’s case. Together with her husband, she has welcomed Chernobyl children since 2001.

“We are at number 23. For 15 years, the ties we forged with the children we took in have not been interrupted. My husband and I consider ourselves grandparents. Although we do not have any children of our own, the first kids that we hosted have become parents themselves.”

Mara has often had to deal with difficult situations. She has seen the effects of radiation on children’s bodies. “We have seen handicapped children with one leg shorter than the other. Some were affected by dwarfism.”

Many of the children come from rural Belarus, which is still largely underdeveloped. “The live in villages without running water and limited access to electrical power. Homes are in wood. Sometimes, they don’t have chairs, although they might have a vegetable garden next to the house that requires a lot of work.”

Igor is the son of a single mother of 16. He stayed at Mara’s place six times. "In Belarus, he barely managed to survive. When he came, he was like Tarzan from the Jungle. Having grown up mostly on his own, he was aggressive and rough, used to strike out in self-defence. His stay here radically transformed him. Now he is one of the kids who best got the message: helping others helps you get what you want.”

“Helping others brings great deal of satisfaction [to host families]. When the children leave, we realise that we got more out of them than they got out of us.”

* Girotondo is the Italian word for Ring a Ring o' Roses.